Startup Idol: AnyRoad taps into the $16 billion tour guide business

July 17, 2013, 4:39 PM UTC
AnyRoad co-founders and brothers Jonathan and Daniel Yaffe. Credit: Chris Wedding

FORTUNE — According to brothers Daniel and Jonathan Yaffe, there are 400,000 full-time, accredited tour guides around the world who account for a $16 billion market, but just 5% of them have any online presence. “What we realized is that there are amazing professional tour guides who are completely off the grid,” explains Daniel. “And so we sought to find out how their lives, and ultimately travelers’ lives, might be better if we were able to bring them onto the grid and give them a platform with more visibility.”

Launched this April, the bootstrapped San Francisco-based AnyRoad offers guides a hub where they can list tours in one of six cities — a Tokyo sake tasting, a light hike through Rio de Janeiro — and tourists may book them. AnyRoad makes money by shaving a small fee from the customer and the guide but gives 5% back to a city’s nonprofits. The startup plans to expand into Greece and Korea within the next two months and wants to be in 15 cities by summer of next year.

MORE: Inkling picks up powerful publishing partners

First things, first, however: AnyRoad must face another challenge entirely. Next week, the Yaffe brothers will vie as one of five contestants for the mantle of this year’s Startup Idol competition at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. We caught up with Daniel, 28, and Jonathan, 31, beforehand for a few quick questions.

To warm you up for next week, let’s hear your elevator pitch. Summarize AnyRoad’s mission in one sentence.

Daniel and Jonathan: AnyRoad is a platform that is modernizing the worldwide tourism industry starting with a $16 billion market of offline tour guides.

Being pretty well-traveled, you’ve said that you wouldn’t necessarily consider yourselves the kind of people who normally take “tours.” When I think of the word “tour,” I think back to the last one I took: a Montreal bus filled with (delightful) senior citizens.

Jonathan: There are of course, the hop-on, hop-off buses of the world: the Alcatraz tours and the Fisherman’s Wharf tours and all of that … But not all tour guides give the general senior citizens walking tour! These [the kind on AnyRoad] are tour guides who have a passion for cocktails or microbreweries or a certain kind of cuisine. Or they think people should explore the nature of cities. Or they have a degree in Renaissance art. Or they have a hobby as graffiti artists. So these are professional, accredited guys, but the tours they give, well, most people wouldn’t describe as “tours” because they’re not quite as visible.

That’s fair. In some cities, you’re pairing up with the local government to make it easier for guides to list tours. Is it a hard sell when you reach out to them?

Daniel: The value proposition that we offer is super-easy. We’re basically going to them and saying, “We’re helping bring your tour guides online, and we’re also giving 5% to local nonprofits. (Oh, and we’re doing this for free.)” So, a lot of governments have been very supportive. They love that we’re not challenging the industry, that really, we’re offering them a platform to help modernize their own infrastructures.